The Poems of Others

In her essay “The Holograph,” poet Brenda Hillman speaks of handwriting a poem over and over as a method of revision in her own practice:

Emerging signs are very close to the nerves of the hand. Seeing a letter formed in stages… pulled into the thread or wick, to the thing of the word itself, gives a sense of participatory process, that the poem is still unfolding, that all of its unconscious dream nature has not yet been foreclosed upon.…

Hillman writes too about our “atavistic connections to the written expression.” Thinking about that “atavistic” quality, that reversion to the ancestral, Poetry Daily asked each member of its new editorial board to name the poem that first sparked poetry in them—the first poem they read that gave them permission to write poetry or the idea that they might write it—the poem that led them down the path to becoming a poet.

We then asked each editor to write about that special experience and to create a writing prompt for others based on an observation about the poem. We also asked them, finally, to handwrite that poem—as a kind of homage to its maker, the poet who came before—and an homage to the poem itself as a thing that first sparked their writing.

“I also like to recopy poems other than my own onto new pages,” Hillman observes in conclusion to her essay, “because there is an intimacy about that as well.”

We are excited to present to you these sixteen intimate homages to the relationship between poet as reader and poet as writer, and to what sparks poetry.

Ilya Kaminsky on Aleksandr Blok’s “[Night, a street, a lamp, a chemist’s shop]”

Aleksandr Blok’s little poem wasn’t the first one I fell in love with, but it was the first poem I read that showed me that poetry isn’t there merely to relay information. The poem is not about the event. It is the event. This poem’s repetitions and syntax enact what it says.

These words by Vi Khi Nao describe the effect: “When used wisely & precisely, the device of repetition has the ability to move text in and out of the future, & from the past into a fluid present. It has the ability to make language time travel through different registers. Repetition can move the text telekinetically.”

Or, per Yanis Ritsos: “A word made fresh by repetition.”

Writing Prompt

Here is how this poem sounds in Russian:

Noch. Ulitsa. Fonar. Upteka.
Besmyslenyi ee tooskyi svet.
Zhivi eche khot chetvert veka–
Vse boodet tak. Iskhoda net.

Umresh—nachnesh opyat snachala,
ee povtoritsya vse kak v star:
Noch, ledyanaya ryab kanala,
Upteka, ulitsa, fonar.

For this exercise: Either a) Use the Dimitri Obolenky’s prose version to come up with your own translation of the piece, or b) Do a homophonic translation, imitating in English the sounds of the Russian, but with a different, perhaps humorous, meaning. Or c) Do a combination of a) and b).

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Ilya Kaminsky

Ilya Kaminsky

Ilya Kaminsky is the author of Dancing In Odessa, which won the Whiting Writer’s Award, the American Academy of Arts and Letters’ Metcalf Award, the Dorset Prize, the Ruth Lilly Fellowship given annually by Poetry magazine. Dancing In Odessa was also named Best Poetry Book of the Year by ForeWord Magazine. Poems from his new manuscript, Deaf Republic, were awarded Poetry magazine’s Levinson Prize and the Pushcart Prize. Kaminsky was also awarded Lannan Foundation’s Literary Fellowship. His anthology of 20th-century poetry in translation, Ecco Anthology of International Poetry, was published by Harper Collins in March. He teaches English and Comparative Literature at San Diego State University.